Ben Braunecker played his first NFL snap on Oct. 2, 2016. Three years, one month and eight days later, he scored his first NFL touchdown - and it came in a critical moment, helping spark the Bears to a 20-13 win over the Detroit Lions on Sunday, one which snapped his team's four-game losing streak.
"I had been imagining, dreaming of what the first touchdown was going to be like for quite some time now," Braunecker said. "I've had to wait three-and-a-half years to do it but I'm glad it finally happened."
Five years ago, Braunecker didn't envision himself identifying man-to-man coverage, running an excellent route to beat safety Will Harris and squeezing an 18-yard touchdown from Mitch Trubisky to put the Bears up 7-6 just before halftime. This is a guy who had 11 catches his junior year at Harvard, where he majored in molecular and cellular biology and surely could've made a successful career out of that degree.
But he committed to football before his senior season, earned an invite to the NFL Combine and caught on the with Bears as an undrafted free agent during 2016's 3-13 season. Since then, he's bounced between the active roster and practice squad and mostly has been viewed as a special teams contributor with little offensive upside.
That meant putting in a lot of dirty work behind the scenes to carve out a role, which he did well enough to earn a two-year, $2.7 million contract earlier this year. And this week, with 2017 second-round pick Adam Shaheen a healthy scratch, the Bears gave Braunecker an opportunity - of which he took full advantage.
"It's a grind, and sometimes a pretty thankless one when you're not necessarily getting opportunities on offense but still needed to perform important roles on the team as far as special teams goes," Braunecker said. "So I was thankful to be put into this situation and I'm very happy that I capitalized on it."
The Bears need more players like Braunecker to make plays when their numbers are called if this offense is going to turn things around in 2019. They don't need guys on the fringes of their roster to be heroes or flex options for your fantasy team, but they do need them to contribute in meaningful ways. Shaheen hadn't done that this year; Braunecker did when given a chance.
His touchdown provided a spark just before halftime, with the Bears riding it to two quick-strike touchdowns in the opening six minutes of the second half.
"That was huge for us, especially going into halftime, kind of a momentum switch," center Cody Whitehair said. "And then we came out, the second half we scored a couple times and got the thing rolling."
Things were still a whirlwind for Braunecker in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's game, so he hadn't spent time reflecting on not only his first career touchdown, but how important it was to his team's victory. He did not take a well-worn path to get to this point.
But that will allow him have a heightened appreciation for the moment, knowing what it took to get there.
"It's always fun - well, it's not fun every day, but moments like this make it worth it," Braunecker said. "Without a doubt."
Ben Braunecker's first career touchdown gives Bears much-needed spark originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago